The unevenness of social change
by John Postill
In his 1958 monograph Politics in an Urban African Community, the Manchester School anthropologist A.L. Epstein, a student of Max Gluckman, discusses the emergence of a political and administrative system in a mining town located in the Copperbelt region of Northern Rhodesia, in what today is Zambia. This work still has much to offer the student of local governance and social change, and it is surprisingly pertinent to digital media studies.
Turning away from the then dominant structuralist-functionalist model and towards historical-processual explanations, Epstein set his study against the canvas of the huge processes of migration and urbanisation that were under way in 1950s Africa. Northern Rhodesia was at the time a profoundly divided society, the main chasm running between Europeans and Africans. In turn, both populations were internally divided along lines such as class, ethnicity, occupation and gender.Yet at the same time there was a high degree of interdependence across the divides, numerous ‘bonds of co-operation’ linking together Africans and Europeans within ‘a single field of social relations’ (1958: xii).
In Copperbelt towns, a relatively stable sociopolitical framework was provided by the mine, the municipal council and the district office (1958: xiv). District commissioners had no say in the running of the mine township, which was a power unto itself (1958: 21). Africans saw commissioners as ‘remote Olympian beings who resided in the Government Offices’ away from the mines (1958: 22). In the interstices of this framework, though, Epstein found ‘a continuous flux in which new groups and associations are constantly springing up’ (1958: xiv). Many of these social formations were ephemeral, but they nonetheless left traces on the field of social relations.
The emerging urban system consisted of ‘many different sets of social relations or spheres of social interaction’ and was riddled with ‘ambiguity and inconsistency’, not least around contested notions of ‘tribalism’ (1958: xvii). Epstein stresses the unevenness of social change across what I call ‘the field of residential affairs’: that field of practice in which local authorities, residents, firms and other social agents compete and cooperate over residential matters. ‘The factors making for social change and development operate over the whole of this field, and are present in every sphere; but they do not impinge upon these spheres with the same weight, or at the same time’ (Epstein 1958: xvii).